The primary laws of the European Union (EU) are contained in the treaties agreed between member states.
These treaties set out how the EU is structured and governed. They also give powers to EU institutions to make and change secondary laws.
The EU has 3 legislative (or law making) institutions:
- The European Commission proposes new laws
- These proposals must be passed by both the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union
Disputes about the interpretation of these laws may be referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The EU uses 3 principles to decide in which areas it can make laws:
- Conferral – the EU’s authority is conferred on it by the Treaties. It cannot act beyond this authority
- Proportionality – the EU should not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the aims of the Treaties
- Subsidiarity – if national governments can act, then the EU should only act if a better outcome would result from an EU law
The primacy of EU lawEU law is superior to national law. This means that Ireland (along with other member states) cannot pass national laws that contradict EU laws. It also means that an EU law can over-rule an Irish law, even if that Irish law was enacted before the EU law came into effect.
As well as being superior to national law, some EU law has direct effect on its citizens. This means that you can rely on EU law in court even in situations where there is no national law in place. Direct effect only applies to EU laws that are binding (see ‘Types of EU laws’ below), clear, precise and unconditional.
How EU laws are made
The EU uses different procedures which depend on the type of law that is being enacted.
The ordinary legislative procedure
This is the procedure used unless the treaties state that another procedure should be used (see ‘Special legislative procedure’ below)
EU laws begin at the European Commission (this is called the right of initiative). The European Commission proposes laws, either of its own choosing or based on consultations with other EU institutions, member states or public consultations.
The proposed law is sent to the European Parliament for its first reading, and is given to the relevant committee to examine. Amendments may be made to the proposed law. The European Parliament votes to either:
- Approve the proposal
- Approve the proposal with amendments
- Reject the proposal
This is known as the parliament’s first reading position.
At the same time, the proposal is also sent to the Council of the European Union for its first reading. The Council takes its position (the council’s position) after the parliament’s position is known. At this stage, the Council can:
- Approve the proposal by a qualified majority. This may involve the Council accepting any amendments approved by the European Parliament.
- Take a 1st reading position of its own. This may be because it disagrees with some parts of the proposal, or the Parliament’s amendments. In this instance, the proposal is sent back to Parliament with reasons and explanations.
- Reject the proposal by a qualified majority.
Qualified majority voting (QMV)
In order to have a decision passed by the Council:
- At least 55% of member states must agree and
- The member states in agreement must represent at least 65% of the EU population
To block the proposal at least 4 member states representing at least 35% of the population of the EU must vote against it.
If the proposal has been sent back to Parliament for a second reading, Parliament may approve or reject it, or may propose amendments and send it back to the Council for a second reading.
If Council does not accept these changes, a Conciliation Committee is formed from an equal number of MEPs and Council representatives. This Committee tries to agree on a text. If it succeeds, the proposal is sent back to the Parliament and Councils for third readings.
At this stage, the text of the proposal cannot be amended. It must be passed by both the Parliament and the Council to pass into law.
The special legislative procedures
In certain cases, the treaties allow for a different procedure than the ordinary legislative procedure.
In some situations, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union must both pass a proposal without the power to make amendments.
In this procedure, the Parliament and Council must pass the proposal before it can become law, and neither institution has the power to amend the proposal. This procedure is used where:
- The EU needs the approval of the European Parliament but is not proposing legislation (for example, it wishes to sanction a member state for breaking EU rules) or
- Where legislation on combating discrimination is proposed
This is used in instances where the Treaties allow the Council to pass a law without the law having to pass the European Parliament. The Parliament must give its advice on the matter, but the Council may choose to pass the law even if the Parliament advises against it.
This is used to assess the implementation of the approved budget by the Commission. While the Council can offer a recommendation, the ultimate ability to approve the implementation (the discharge) is made by the Parliament.
Types of EU Law
Treaties are the fundamental laws of the EU. All treaties must be ratified (passed and agreed) by member states.
Treaties set out the rules for how the institutions of the EU function. The EU was founded on a number of treaties, and its expansion and development has been underpinned by the agreement of treaties between the member states.
The European Charter of Fundamental Rights has the same legal value as the treaties.
Regulations are laws that apply to all member states (they have direct effect). They become part of national law and can be enforced through the national courts of each member state from the time they come into force.
Directives are laws that set goals for member states to implement. Member states can introduce laws that transpose directives into national law. Directives normally have deadlines for countries to adopt them into national law.
Decisions are only relevant to specified bodies. For example, the EU Commission might issue a decision that Ireland is acting in breach of EU law. The decision has a direct effect on the country, company or organisation that the decision is issued against.
Recommendations and Opinions are not binding, and EU member states can follow the advice of these recommendations if they wish to or they can choose not to change anything.
EU laws and Ireland
The Constitution of Ireland recognises that EU law is superior to all national law.
The EU is the only body that can pass laws regarding:
- Customs union
- Competition rules in the single market
- Monetary policy in the Eurozone
- International trade agreements
- Marine plants and animals
Membership of the EU has had a profound effect on Irish law. Some examples of where EU regulations and directives have effected rights of Irish citizens are below.
Many important employment laws in Ireland either began as or incorporated aspects of EU directives or regulations. Some examples are:
|Equality||It is unlawful to discriminate in the workplace on certain grounds||The Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015 transposed and expanded upon Directive 2000/78|
|Terms of Employment||Workers must receive a written statement of their terms of employment||Terms of Employment (Information) Act 1994 transposed Directive 91/533/EEC|
|Holidays||Workers are entitled to at least 4 week’s paid holidays per year||Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 transposed Directive 93/104/EC|
|Maternity leave||Ireland’s maternity leave and maternity protection laws are based in part on EU directives||Maternity Protection Act 1994 transposed Directive 91/533/EEC|
|Parental Leave||Parents must be given leave from work regardless of their gender||Parental Leave Acts 1998-2019 transposed and expanded on Directive 96/34/EEC|
|The working week||Maximum working hours, rest periods, breaks and annual leave entitlements||Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 transposed Directive 2003/88/EC|
You can read more on Irish employment law
Many of Ireland’s environmental laws have come from the EU, including the rights of access to information on environmental matters and public participation in environmental decisions under the Aarhus Convention.
Ireland also has targets to reduce emissions that have been set as part of its membership of the EU and through the Kyoto Protocol.
The European Court of Justice has made important rulings regarding Ireland’s management of its environment.
You can read more on ‘European environmental law’.
Consumers are protected under EU law when purchasing goods and services from other EU countries. Read more about this in ‘Consumer rights in the European Union’.
Further information and contactsYou can read more about the EU and how it works in our documents:
Europe Direct is a free telephone and e-mail service that provides information about the EU. It offers information on a wide range of subjects including legislation, policies, institutions, programmes and the rights of EU citizens. It can also refer users to the best source of advice at EU, national, regional and local levels. There are several Europe Direct local information centres in Ireland.